Crypt of Kings: Spain’s San Lorenzo de El Escorial

It would probably take all day to count the windows.

About an hour’s drive from Madrid is a massive complex used for both divine and regal purposes. Speeding along the twisting highway, you’ll suddenly be greeted by The Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, sitting on the edge of the small village of El Escorial, Spain. The building is both a monastery and a royal palace, and it dates, astonishingly from 1563. Most recently, it’s become famous as one of the locations in Dan Brown’s new book, Origin.

Visiting San Lorenzo de El Escorial

San Lorenzo de El Escorial Spain travel

The five floor building’s seemingly small linear rows of windows stretch toward the horizon. Though some would call the building spartan since it lacks a lot of the decoration common several hundred years ago, by today’s standards it’s still quite elaborate.

This monastery-palace also houses a Basilica, an ancient library, a school, and some six hundred years of Spanish royalty are buried under the building in a sun dappled crypt complex. The palace was recently featured as one of the locations in Origin, as Brown’s character professor Robert Langdon tries to untangle a murder.

Getting to El Escorial – get the name right

A note about getting to this site for visitors: if you’re driving and using GPS or mapping software, make sure your destination is input as “San Lorenzo de El Escorial”. If you input “El Escorial” you’ll get taken in circles through the centre of the town.

There are many rooms and sights to see at San Lorenzo de El Escorial, but you can call these the highlights:

Highlights of San Lorenzo de El Escorial

Patio of the Kings/Patio de Reyesel escorial patio of kings spain visit travel

An imposing first stop on the self guided tour we take is the Patio of Kings. This four sided plaza or square is hemmed in on all sides by the monastery building, creating a sprawling patio courtyard. Soaring high overhead is the facade of the Basilica, which features stunning stonework and gargantuan statues of past kings on top.

Basilica

Passing through the high archways of the facade, you’ll enter the Basilica. It’s huge and cavernous and every surface is gilded. Wooden pews rib the sides of the main aisle, or nave, and your gaze will be led to a 4-storey columned display featuring sculptures of pious royals and their families, located behind the altar.

Royal Library/Biblioteca Real

Rows of golf-leafed books peek out from shelves in the library, but it’s the ceiling that’s the star of this space. Colourful, bright frescoes and friezes cover the room and natural light spills in from the windows, giving the whole space an otherworldly golden glow. Hand carved bookshelves line the sides of the room, and they’ve been fitted with chicken wire to prevent visitors from stealing the tomes.

Palace/Palacioel escorial spain san lorenzo how to travel visit

Though it was first conceived as a monastery, King Felipe II also wanted a place he could build as a tribute to his family, and his ancestors, so naturally royal living quarters were a part of the construction. Compared to the Palacio Real of Madrid, these rooms are quite spartan, though they would have been regal in their day.

A frigid palace for the King

The weather is quite cold on the day we visit, and without heating, El Escorial is bitterly cold. It makes us wonder how the royals could have spent time here in cooler parts of the year. A guard helpfully shows us small metal trays on wooden legs placed in the centre of many of the royal rooms (photo at bottom), and explains that coals from the fireplaces were dispersed into these to help spread the heat.

Royal Children’s Crypt/Panteón de Infantes

Soon we’re climbing down, down, down into the basement of the complex. Here there are dozens of members of Spain’s royal family interred.

White marble crypts line the walls, and inside are the royal children who didn’t end up being kings or queens. The wide room gives way to another similar room, and then onto a corner area where a circular tiered crypt rises into the middle of the room like a morbid wedding cake.

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The room turns sharply left where more rows of more modern white marble crypts march towards the room most visitors come to see…

Crypt of Kings/Panteon de Reyes

Definitely the most moving and unusual site at San Lorenzo de el Escorial, this chamber is buried deep within the complex. A long and polished flight of stairs leads to a circular room where marble sarcophagi are layered in niches in the walls.

Here, 600 years of Spanish Kings and Queens have been laid to rest. All the sarcophagi are made from beautifully regal gold metalwork and violet stone. Each King is buried opposite his wife and then their heir to the throne is placed underneath his father.

Fascinatingly, or perhaps creepily, there are two empty sarcophagi labelled for the parents of the current King. Former King Juan Carlos and his wife Sofia will be interred here one day and the knowledgeable security guard on duty tells us they will be the last royals to rest here. It’s unclear where the future royals will end up.

This site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, added to the list in 1984.

Visitor tips:

If you come to El Escorial by car, take note of the GPS instructions above and make sure you input them correctly.

If it’s winter, or otherwise cold weather outside, assume it will be only marginally warmer inside. The entire complex of San Lorenzo de el Escorial is made of stone, and many parts of it are open to the outside air, so dress for warmth.

There are lots of little shops and bars, cafes and restaurants in the village if you plan to stay for lunch or need a hot coffee or cold drink.

The site is open Tuesday to Sunday and admission is about €10.

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  1. […] took it on a day trip from Madrid into the Spanish countryside to visit the royal palace San Lorenzo El Escorial about an hour’s drive from […]